Well, it finally happened. Something in my brain must have snapped into reverse, because I've grown a little bored with... wow, I'm not even sure there's a word for the concept, so I'm going to coin it here: I've grown bored with "character-simple" RPGs. This is not the same thing as rules-heavy vs. rules-light; I still want rules-light. I would still rather make a ruling than search through a manual for some obscure procedure. But I've just about had it with games where the player characters are defined only by a few broad cliches and some bare numerical ratings. There's something about this over-simplification that just doesn't work for long campaigns. The simplicity of the characters themselves isn't satisfying.
I have often derided "feats" (in the d20 System sense of the term) and similar "perk" mechanics in the past, for a number of reasons: they can be a crutch, a distraction from creative play; they can be limiting when poorly designed, circumscribing actions that any character ought to be able to attempt and making them available only to a character in possession of the right piece of game-mechanical fiddle-faddle. I've derided systems like Savage Worlds that rely on the selection of a la carte perks and abilities as "Lego-brick character building" games; and indeed, it's from these mechanics that we get the abomination that is the "character optimization mini-game" which so utterly corrupted D&D's 3rd edition (and ensured that 4th edition would be born rotten to the very core).
But what if I could do it right?
What if I could design a simple system, light on procedural rules, but still open to the building of relatively complex, customizable player characters? There are a number of pitfalls to avoid here. Monsters and NPCs would have to remain quite simple, certainly no more complicated than a typical OD&D monster stat-block. (You don't want to be building whole characters whenever the PCs need to fight human antagonists.) The special abilities themselves must always be additive rather than restrictive: they add an ability that a character can now perform, rather than setting aside some action that anyone might reasonably be able to take and allowing it only to those with the right special ability. And synergy has to be kept to a minimum, so that stackable "combos" can't be used to game the system; no cheese allowed.
I think it can be done. And if my ideas work out, I might just have that flat power-curve I've always wanted, a game that can do literary and TV style fiction (rather than the chumps-to-gods model that keeps me from playing any version of D&D anymore). The goal here is a game where characters start competent, and they mainly broaden out their skills over time, growing only a little bit more "powerful" (strictly in the fighting, spell-casting, challenge-thwarting sense) as the game wears on, but decidedly more adaptable when it comes to meeting a diversity of different challenge types.
Anyway, it all starts with a core mechanic. I'll discuss that next time.